The Trump administration will move its US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May, the State Department announced Friday, coinciding with Israel’s 70th anniversary.
While symbolically important, the move is likely a preliminary step in a broader relocation effort initiated by the administration in December, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has said will take “years.”
The embassy will first be set up in an existing US facility in the West Jerusalem neighborhood of Arnona that “will contain office space for the Ambassador and a small staff,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement announcing the plan. The facility will function as the official embassy while plans to secure a permanent location and design a building are drawn up.
“By the end of next year, we intend to open a new Embassy Jerusalem annex on the Arnona compound that will provide the Ambassador and his team with expanded interim office space,” Nauert added. “In parallel, we have started the search for a site for our permanent Embassy to Israel, the planning and construction of which will be a longer-term undertaking.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised the announcement in a statement, saying it would, “turn Israel’s 70th Independence Day into an even greater national celebration.”
But the move was derided by Saeb Erekat, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who said that it showed the determination of the Trump administration to “destroy the two-state solution.”
This latest timeline suggests the effort to settle officials into the temporary facility are being expedited.
In December, shortly after President Donald Trump announced the US would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, Tillerson told reporters the process would likely take more than a year. As part of the process, he said, the State Department needed to acquire a site, make construction and building plans, ensure necessary authorizations and then build the embassy itself.
The State Department then decided to retrofit an existing US consular facility in Arnona for use ahead of the permanent embassy’s construction. That building sits near the Green Line, the de facto border of Israel before the 1967 war.
But the timing of the move caused tensions between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and US Ambassador David Friedman, CNN reported last month. Officials said Friedman had pushed to move the embassy this year, but Tillerson had successfully persuaded the President for more time to upgrade the security of the new facility.
“What you’ll see from the secretary is that we will do this at the pace of security, not at the pace of politics,” Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy Steve Goldstein said at the time.
Goldstein told CNN on Friday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed off on a security plan Thursday for moving the embassy, clearing the final hurdle for the symbolic move.
Tillerson told reporters on Friday that he is “fairly confident” the agency would be prepared for an opening in May. Asked specifically about whether the security infrastructure would be adequate in that time frame, he said, simply, “We’ll be fine.”
Earlier on Friday, the Associated Press reported that the administration was considering a contribution from Republican donor Sheldon Adelson to help fund the new embassy. A person close to Adelson confirmed to CNN that the idea was floated and discussed.
Goldstein said State Department lawyers were looking at the legality of such a gift but Adelson has not made a formal request and no formal talks have taken place, suggesting nothing is imminent.
“We are taking a look at it and will be looking at it for a period of time,” Goldstein said.
According to two senior State Department officials, the idea is the product of an informal conversation between Adelson and Friedman in which Adelson made the offer. Both officials said they didn’t expect it to go anywhere.
The decision to move the embassy was widely condemned by the international community over concerns the action would undermine the prospects for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians.
Both Israel and the Palestinians claim Jerusalem as their historic capital.
In December, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favor of a nonbinding resolution condemning the move.
But in a speech on Friday, Trump stood by his decision, which allowed him to follow through on a signature campaign promise.
“We officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said to prolonged applause from a friendly audience at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference just outside Washington, DC.